Art Therapy: An Empowering Path to Self-Development

In the following interview with Cyndy Walker, TPR explores the nature and the advantages of art therapy

Cyndy WalkerTPR: Please could you define art therapy?

Cyndy Walker: It is important to be clear about what art therapy is and what it isn’t. Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. People often associate art therapy with children, but it can help people from all demographic groups including teenagers, adults and the elderly. Another fallacy is that art therapy involves an interpretation of the expressive work, followed by a diagnosis. On the contrary, art therapy allows clients to express and work through complicated emotions within an open, non-judgmental framework. What matters is what the work means to its author. It’s about the process and not the end product. Finally, art therapy is not to be mistaken for a recreational activity or an art course, as it neither aims to entertain nor to teach specific art skills.

 TPR: How does art therapy compare with regular psychotherapy?

Cyndy Walker: There are two fundamental differences between art therapy and talking therapies. The first obvious one is the use of a non-verbal mode of expression, which can be liberating when verbal therapy has reached its limits or proves to be difficult. For example, it can help clients who get stuck in the process of verbal therapy and yet still want – and need – to find out how to express feelings and resolve issues.

The second difference is in the nature of the therapeutic relationship: the production of works of creative expression adds a third element to the client/therapist relationship, leading to a different dynamic, in which the artwork becomes a focal point for both the client and the therapist.

At the outset, clients may find it daunting to express themselves through art media. It is not unusual for people to have absorbed a lot of negative baggage about art, or to have been halted in their creativity during their school years by the opinions of teachers and peers. This is why it is crucial to stress that you do not have to be good at art, or have any affinity with art, to benefit from it. Ultimately, everyone is creative and there is no wrong way of going about it.

 TPR: How does art therapy work?

Cyndy Walker: Art therapy works by allowing a person’s unresolved issues to express themselves in a safe, non-judgmental place. By bypassing language, art therapy can help people explore what is troubling them and preventing them from living a fulfilling life. During the process, things come up that the client didn’t expect to find. It can be a powerful outlet for unresolved difficulties, unsettled grief, forgotten events or dreams… It is not a quick fix; a client is asked to commit to 12 sixty-minute sessions because it requires time for the client to develop a foundation of how they engage with the art therapy process and to work with what comes up. For example, there can come a time when the impulse to express can be unsettling or frustrating, when the client feels they’re approaching a frontier they don’t want to face or contemplate exploring. This is usually when they are getting very close to discovering something they need to acknowledge in order to fully understand what is holding them back and be able to move forward. This is why it is crucial to have about 12 sessions to allow the process to work. Consistency and continuity are equally important, so sessions need to take place on a weekly basis. 

TPR: How are sessions organised?

Cyndy Walker: Art therapy begins with an introductory session during which I’ll ask the client to introduce him or herself to me using the art materials. Their creative expression could be anything: a portrait, an abstract drawing, a landscape… or something else! The amount of time spent doing the artwork and talking really depends on the individual person. Some people like to work in silence and to speak about their work afterwards, in which case I leave enough time for a discussion. Others like to talk while they are producing the artwork.

At the end of each session I make sure the client is grounded and stable. In between sessions, clients know they can contact me if they need to touch base. As in any therapeutic relationship, everything is kept strictly confidential.

 TPR: What happens to the creative expressions?

 Cyndy Walker: I keep their expressions until the end of the therapeutic relationship, but during the course of sessions it is up to the client whether they carry on from the previous week or start afresh. Such a framework allows people to step back, review the process and acknowledge the progress made and their evolving attitudes.

TPR: Can art therapy be used for self-development or to stimulate creativity?

Cyndy Walker: Art therapy is very effective both as an aid to self-development and as a means of stimulating creativity. It is very different to other types of activities people will embark on as a means of self-development. Although ‘trying something new’ such as abseiling or learning to fly a plane will undoubtedly enrich a person’s life with new skills and experiences, such activities are very directive and leave no space for unresolved issues to surface and be worked on. Art therapy, on the contrary, allows a safe spaciousness within which the whole self can express itself. By deciding to go on such an open self-development path, consciously and subconsciously things will begin percolating inside. During the course of sessions, the unconscious will bubble up and bring up unexpected things, forgotten events, abandoned dreams and so forth, which the client can process and resolve before he or she can fully develop.

For the purposes of self-development, art therapy sessions can be a very exciting and valuable opportunity to explore oneself non-verbally, and to get beyond the labels that hold us back and that we take for granted. It can be particularly eye opening for articulate people who are good at hiding behind words, as the non-verbal will force them to cut through this tendency. Art therapy is also great at stimulating creativity, because it allows one to look at things differently. It can be an opportunity to flip things on their head and gain a new perspective.

In all cases, sessions are most productive when non-directive; something will come up every time. From my perspective, it is a real privilege to work with people in this way; to see them evolving and growing in confidence… because confidence is about being willing to try new things on a variety of levels, be it emotionally, physically and behaviourally.

TPR: How important is it to include creative activities in one’s life?

Cyndy Walker: I would say that the importance of creativity in health and wellbeing cannot be overestimated. By not making time for creativity, you lose a part of who you are; you stop evolving as a human being and get stuck. If you nurture yourself through a creative outlet, there will be more space for you to be yourself and you will grow and flourish.

 TPR: Are there demographic groups that benefit more from art therapy than others?

Cyndy Walker: Art therapy can help people from all demographic groups. For example, in my practice over the years, I have seen how empowering art therapy can be for women. Whether or not they have children, women tend to carry a lot more on their shoulders. Without wishing to generalise, women are often natural carers and tend to prioritise everyone and everything else over themselves. I find that women often feel that art therapy is a luxury; I cannot stress strongly enough how untrue this is! Art therapy is not a luxury; it is self-care. By leaving their own wellbeing last, and not making any space for creativity in their lives, they may eventually lose touch with who they are. This is where art therapy can help, by reconnecting them with their own self, and by giving a voice to aspects of themselves that have been buried through self-neglect. It can be a truly empowering and liberating experience.

Art therapy can also bring great support to teenagers and young adults. In a day and age when the education system puts increasing pressure on pupils to deliver, teenagers can often feel that they’re just surviving, struggling to satisfy the demands placed on them by exams and other competitive challenges. They no longer have the time nor the ability to be in the moment, and in the process they begin to lose themselves and can no longer hear their own voice. Art therapy can be particularly helpful to them as an exercise in mindfulness. By giving them some time each week to express themselves, art therapy allows them to be present in the here and now. It also gives them the space to pause and to reflect, to find out what they’re really thinking about and how they’re feeling about different areas of their lives. It gives them the chance to listen to and to build confidence in their own voice. When I work with children or teenagers, I ensure that a parent or guardian stays nearby in case there’s a need to hand the child over. However, the adult will not be present in the room, because the child must not be inhibited and needs to know it is a safe, confidential place to voice worries, fears, wants and needs.

TPR: What kind of materials can people use during a course of art therapy?

Cyndy Walker: People can have a play. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no right or wrong way of doing things. Materials vary between paint, chalk, clay, charcoal, felt tips, different types of paper, pastels…. Some materials are more suited to certain temperaments than others; for example, people with anger issues may prefer kinaesthetic materials. 

TPR: How should one go about finding an art therapist?

Cyndy Walker: To be an art therapist in the UK, one must have a postgraduate degree in Art Psychotherapy and be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. It is important for people to be aware that there is a distinction between art therapy and exploratory art courses facilitated by artists. The latter will not be trained in psychotherapy and will not have the skills and experience to deal safely with people’s issues. People can find out more about art therapy by visiting the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) website: www.baat.org

Interview produced by Nadia Sajadi-Rosen on behalf of The Practice Rooms – April 2016

About Cyndy Walker:

During her work as an art therapist for 24 years, Cyndy has worked with children, adolescents and adults in individual and group settings, both in the USA and the UK. These settings include work with young people in mainstream and special schools. Adult clients have come from inpatient and outpatient substance abuse programmes, prison and probation service, day centres and residential settings for people with learning disabilities, multiple sclerosis support groups, inpatient psychiatric hospitals, and women’s transitional housing. Cyndy has also worked with life coaches delivering professional training and workshops.

If you would like to speak to Cyndy about art therapy, please feel free to contact her: cyndywalker@ntlworld.com

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Perspectives, Spring 2016 – Links to other articles in this issue

 

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